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CHAPTER 57 ~ TOUCH

Back at work the next morning, Gunther settled into the rhythm of daily life once more. The metronome tick of meetings and phone calls, emails and schedules soothed him as it always did, like a mother's hand on the forehead of a sickly child.

Natalie popped in with his lunch, and settled into one of the visitor chairs with her own food—having forgone her usual daily salad for the temptation of a toasted panini like the one Gunther had every day—and they ate in companionable silence as Gunther browsed the internet for the latest news, checked on stock prices, and glanced at his personal emails.

"How's the wedding planning going?" Natalie asked, halfway through her panini and pausing to take a sip of coffee.

Gunther sat back with a grin. "The venue's booked and the invitations are ordered," he said. "Valois has been doing most of it, because he says he wants some of the day to be a surprise for me. Oh, and we're going for a suit fitting on Wednesday."

"Together? Scandalous!" Natalie said with a giggle. "The groom's not supposed to see the bride until she walks down the aisle towards him!"

"My dear secretary, we're both wearing the same thing, so I'm hardly going to be shocking him by walking down the aisle in some giant meringue of a dress."

"I'd pay good money to see that!" Natalie giggled again, tossing her empty panini wrapper into the small trashcan behind Gunther's desk before subsiding into the bliss of her coffee cup.

"Actually, I have a favour to ask you about all that," Gunther murmured. "I'd like you to do something for me on the day."

"Sure! Name it, boss man."

"Well, Mort is going to be Best Man, and you're going to be Matr—" At Natalie's look, he grinned and corrected himself, "—bridesmaid, but there's someone important missing from the line-up."

Natalie waited, then poked Gunther's bicep. "Okay, are you going to actually tell me or am I supposed to guess? My witchy skills are improving, thanks to Mum's training, but I'm not bloody psychic!"

Gunther could feel his cheeks heating up, and seeing Natalie tilt her head somewhat curiously at that didn't help him find the words he needed to say next.

"Uh, well... I have this silly notion that, even though I'm not a bride or anything, I'd like someone to give me away at the wedding. And I have no living relatives that I'm close to, so..."

Natalie's expression softened, and she took hold of Gunther's hand, cradling it between her palms. "If you're asking me whether I'd like to do that for you," she said, "then I would love to. In fact, it would be an honour. You old romantic, you!"

He gave her a sheepish grin. "It's not too girly, or anything?"

"Not at all. I think it's lovely. Does Valois know you want to do that?"

"He was the one who suggested asking you to do it."

"Dear man!" Natalie sighed. "Honestly, you two make me feel sometimes as if I'm not quite some jaded old woman around whom romance took a sharp body swerve. Not just yet, anyway." She sighed, then gave him an impish grin.

"You're too damn gorgeous and energetic to be single for long," Gunther said with a snort. "Body swerve indeed."

She still hadn't let go of his hand, and he was beginning to wonder why she was holding onto it for so long. He didn't want to seem rude by pulling away, but he was feeling a bit uncomfortable about it, and what it might mean.

"Nat..." he said, hesitantly. "You know that, if I'd not met Valois, I would probably have—"

"Oh hush, I know you would. I'm not being all wistful and 'what could've been' about us, okay? I'm happy to have you as a good friend. I'm just... I dunno... thoughtful and wondering if I even want another relationship."

"Some gorgeous bloke will blindside you one day," Gunther murmured. "He'll show up when you least expect it, sweep you off your feet, and you won't have a choice. You won't even know what hit you."

Natalie winked at him. "There speaks the voice of experience, right?"

With a nod, Gunther laughed. "Well I certainly wasn't expecting my gorgeous bloke to gatecrash a dinner party and play Beethoven on the piano for me, so yeah. Voice of experience."

He looked down at her hands—still holding his—and was about to say something, when they tightened briefly, and then she dropped his hand suddenly, blinking fast as if she'd just got something in her eye.

"What—?" he began, then realised she was staring at his neck and colouring up to her hairline.

"Um." She didn't seem to know what to say. "Sorry. I shouldn't have..."

He could feel something deep inside him sinking into his shoes. "Shouldn't have... what?" he said hoarsely.

She looked thoroughly flustered now. "I didn't mean to pry!"

"Nat?" He grabbed her wrist and leaned forward in his chair. "What do you mean 'pry'?"

"Shit. Mum said I needed to get it under control!" Natalie turned a pleading gaze onto him. "I won't tell anyone. I promise!"

Gunther was trembling. No, surely she couldn't have sensed that...

"What," he murmured, "did you just do? A witch thing, right?"

She nodded, biting her lip. "I have this thing I can do. Sort of an empathy thing? It started soon after Mum started training me in the witch stuff. I can sort of... see people, see moments from their lives when I touch them. It's like a crystal ball, but in my head."

Touch them? Gunther let go of her wrist, a jolt of terror going through him, even as she said softly:

"It's all right. I won't tell, I promise. I got such a sense of peace from the moment I saw. It was beautiful, even though it was, well, a bit of a shock to see you like that."

He was on his feet in a moment, moving quickly away from her, one hand covering his mouth. "FUCK!" he rasped, blind panic consuming him.

"Ma petite lionne," a familiar voice said behind him, and he wheeled around. There was Valois, crouching before Natalie, taking her hands in his, and saying firmly, "I cannot allow this."

Natalie gaped at him. "Where the hell did you come from?! You just popped out of thin—"

She slumped in the chair as Valois murmured a few words and then reached up to stroke his fingertips across her forehead as the air shimmered around them both.

Gunther paced the floor, shaking with fear. She knew! She had seen him, somehow, naked and collared and kneeling for Valois... or... maybe even worse! He whimpered, folding in on himself, and then he was caught in strong arms and pulled close to Valois's familiar comfort.

"Hush," Valois murmured, stroking a soothing hand through Gunther's hair. "The memory of what she saw is gone. I replaced it with one of us sitting together on the couch; just a simple and fully-clothed cuddle, all right? No more fear, my darling one." He kissed Gunther's temple. "No more fear."

Tears of relief welled in Gunther's eyes and he let them spill over as he clung to Valois with a helpless little nod. "I wondered why she wouldn't let go."

"She is a woman, mon cur." Valois kissed him again. "Endlessly curious, and she adores you, hm? She is a sweet thing, and a fierce friend, but you must not allow her to get close to you like that again. I cannot remove that skill, for that is not how magical gifts work, and the risk is too high that—if she touches you for more than a few moments—she will see the same thing again. In fact, this must go for all contact save that with your son. There is no way for you to tell who has this talent and who does not. All right?"

"I can't refuse to touch people." Gunther sniffed and rubbed a hand across his nose. "I'm a businessman. I have to shake hands with people all the time."

"The brief touch of a handshake is acceptable. It is not long enough for someone with such a skill to discern anything more than a vague notion of character. However, you must release the hand as soon as etiquette permits. Promise me this, or I may be forced to come to you like this again and again."

Gunther nodded, miserably. "But what about the wedding? People will want hugs and stuff then," he whispered.

Valois's arms tightened around him, and Gunther buried his face in his lover's throat.

"You forget, my darling, that I will be there and watching over everything at the wedding. Just now, I was asleep, and was woken by such a sharp spike of terror from you; it was as if I had been punched in the gut. My clothing, my state of neatness; all are illusions in this moment. I jumped out of bed, cast the quickest spell of my life to make myself presentable, and came here instantly."

Gunther only felt even more miserable at that. He'd disturbed Valois's sleep, forced him into a panicked awakening... Oh god, those were not good things to do to his master!

"Hush, mon cur. Those thoughts are not appropriate for this place. Here, I am your partner only. Now, look at me."

Raising his face, Gunther bit his lip and looked at Valois with penitence in his gaze. He had to say sorry somehow, and this was the best way he could do it.

"Your apology is accepted, mine," Valois whispered. "Now, put on your professional face once more. Natalie is enjoying a nice little nap at the moment, and when she awakens she will recall you asking her to give you away, and her own sweet response to that, but nothing more beyond. You will need to be her boss again, with his lunch almost finished and wanting another coffee before he gets back to work, hm?"

Gunther nodded, trying to pull himself together. Then, something Valois had said made him hesitate. "You were asleep?" he asked, puzzled. "But... it's lunchtime."

Valois smiled. "Can I not have an afternoon nap sometimes at my advanced age? My darling boy, I was walking in the Veil, replenishing the source of my magical power. I sometimes do this naked, as the power replenishes much faster that way, and it is simply more comfortable to do so while in bed. Especially when there is the possibility of a young boy wandering in while I am not fully conscious in the world of reality."

All Gunther could say to that was a small, "Oh." Then, after a moment, he added, "I'm sorry you were pulled out of that so quickly."

"It is no matter. My promise to you is more important than anything else. Now, do you feel more grounded, my darling?"

Gunther nodded, giving Valois a weak smile to prove that he did actually feel much better.

"Good." Valois kissed him, deep and slow, and Gunther clung to him.

"Hm, the taste of your mouth is making me hungry," Valois murmured, with a soft chuckle. "It was a delicious lunch, I think. I may have to make something tasty for myself when I return home."

Gunther laughed, feeling a little bit empty as Valois let him go and stepped back. A pale hand raised his chin, and Valois smiled at him, whispered, "I love you," and then vanished.

Gunther took a moment to compose himself, then sat back down in his chair. With a quick glance at Natalie, he began surfing the net again, trying not to click his mouse too loudly. And, after another minute or two, Natalie shifted and opened her eyes.

"Oh my god," she mumbled. "I fell asleep?!"

He grinned at her. "Looks like it. Take the afternoon off, if you need some rest."

"Why the heck didn't you wake me up?!"

"You're on your lunchbreak." He laughed. "If you only knew the number of power naps I've taken in this office, you wouldn't be so embarrassed. Go and make us both another coffee, and you'll soon be okay."

"Oy!" She slapped a hand to her forehead and got to her feet. "That'll teach me not to sit up until one in the morning mainlining season five of Sex and Sim City in one go!"

And with that, she wandered into her office, and Gunther sat back in his chair with a sigh of relief as he heard the coffee machine start to hiss and splutter.

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